Thursday, February 23, 2012

John the Revelator

Listen to Blind Willie Johnson sing John the Revelator

I attended Catholic school for 12 years, 5 of those under the piercing gaze and wicked intellect of the Jesuits. I studied the bible pretty rigorously. King James, Douay-Reims, and other, more modern and more accurate, translations. Now, we all know that there were lots of writings in the early days of Christianity but canonical decisions were in place by the time of the Council of Nicea. The first one. There’s been a lot of change, however, between then and now. We’ve discovered more, and more accurate, manuscripts, the Dead Sea scrolls, better translations, and so on.

The most fascinating one to me is the recent discovery and translation of scrolls hidden in caves in the Dodecanese dated to the first century CE (AD) which seem to be the most original version of John’s (Feel free to decide for yourself which John. Does that make you feel uncomfortably like a hooker? ) “Revelations,” especially the passages concerning the horsemen. To wit:

Revelation 6

[1] And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, the first of the five beasts saying, Come and see.

[2] And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.

[3] And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.

[4] And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.

[5] And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.

[6] And I heard a voice in the midst of the five beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.

[7] And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.

[8] And I looked, and behold a corpse-green horse; and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

[9] And when he had opened the fifth seal, I heard the voice of the fifth beast say, Come and see. And lo I beheld a rainbow horse; and he that sat on him was Fabulous. And authority was given to him to lively up the place and the other horsemen who were most depressing and dullsome. And he did.

[10] And it was good.

I guess there's gonna be some theological tussling happening in our future.

P.S. Yes, I just made this up but who knows?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Plea to the Horae

Yes, it's a poem. It rhymes in four places! [Name that movie!] Well, actually a few more than four. Being sick in February moves me to write elegaic couplets. Ok, bad elegaic couplets but cut me some slack. Did I mention that I'm sick?

A Plea to the Horae

Hear me, you Horae, gamboling in your endless gyre,
While flesh-bound mortals churn through frozen mire.
Alcyone has returned from her solstice nest, tho’ fierce Boreas still holds sway
And daughter Chione’s cloak on the Cascades whitens our still-short day.
It is the time of the Black Horse and the Pale Green,
The corpse-colored flesh and the Nyx-cloaked, unseen
Rider gathering customers for Charon, endlessly plying his way
From shore to shore, ‘cross the Styx, for those with the pennies to pay.
Our gods seem more Norse than those soft Greco-Romans. We hail Ullr and Skadi
Here in Seattle, Gateway to the Pacific, soi-disant Emerald City.
Locked in this season’s gods’ and goddesses’ relentless embraces
Our stomachs cling to our backbones while living color runs from our faces.
Limos requires our worship and sacrifice and Alphito calls us her own.
Their stay with us is a conclusion foregone; it seems our destruction is sown.
And she snips and snips and snips again, like a longshoreman earning overtime.
Atropos is a busy girl now, clipping thread after thread, but not mine!
“Not mine!” I say, you damnable bitch! Not mine, not today, not tomorrow.
I reject you. I dismiss you. I cast you out. Find a demesne else to spread sorrow.
Sweet Horae!, I beg. I implore. I beseech. Please, heed this entreaty from me.
Speed the arrival of Flora and Chloris and fair Persephone.
Printemps! O sweet season, I could write you a song and sing it up high and down low.
The words might be poor and the scansion quite weak but the joy that it shared would just FLOW.
It would have a drumbeat you could feel down in Hell and a funky bass line that would match,
Guitar riffs to rattle the pillars of Earth, and some sweet synth. With Leslie sounds? Natch!
I could sit on the tramp on the front of old Gort with the wind in the jib tight above,
The horizon as empty as name-your-own-metaphor and the ocean as blue as true love.
O! to be on the beach with the ones that I love, my Ronnie, my MJ, my Chloe,
With the sand underfoot so squeaky and white that it looks much less sandy than snowy.
Ah, but snowy is the spacetime that holds us close now, with Ullr and Skadi transcendent.
Horae, dear Horae, m’aider!, if you will and bring us to Flora ascendant.
I call on you deities, present and past, and those yet to come, if I may.
Speed us to Springtime, and free us from Winter. For this boon, we poor mortals pray.
If you ignore us, we’ll put our heads down and just go do what we do.
We’ve done it forever and we’ll do it some more. And meanwhile, here’s a “FUCK YOU!”

Ronnie, MJ, and Chloe on the beach at Destin

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Flesh-eating Blue Tang of Death!

**submitted for the unschooling blog carnival for March. Topic = animal(s)**

The Flesh-eating Blue Tang of Death!

Horror beyond your most perverse imagination!

Havoc! Chaos! Destruction!

Can it be stopped?

Scientists named it Acanthurus coeruleus but that is simply a distraction from its true nature. Fear the voracious Blue Death!

You have been warned! If you suffer from heart trouble or even high blood pressure, for your sake and the sake of your loved ones, STOP READING NOW!

I mean it!

Check it out! That's some scary shit! Doesn't that face just look mean?

Stop thinking about that one! It's not that! It's not that at all! That's a cartoon character based on Paracanthurus hepatus not Acanthurus coeruleus, so just forget it!

And so our tale begins.

Once upon a time there were some flesh-eating zombies…

No, wait. That was my classic opener every time the girls asked me to tell them a story/fairytale. (Yes, I’m an awesome dad.) This is a true story, although it could be a fairytale ‘cause it has fantastic creatures, magical locations, dramatic elements, and contains a moral. Sounds exactly like a fairytale, right? This particular tale contains no zombies. A few years after the events in this story, we’ll begin a grand sailing adventure on the Zombie Princess of New Orleans; but that’s a different story.

The girls were 7 and 8 the first time we took them sailing in the Caribbean. They’d always been waterbabies and we were excited to share the wonders of Caribbean reef life with them. Our first exciting adventure, snorkelling in Paradise in the crystal clear, 85-degree water, took place at a group of rocky islets in the British Virgin Islands called The Indians. We tied up to a mooring ball and had our pre-snorkel briefing with the girls. After covering the basics about snorkelling safety, not touching coral, etc., I talked to the girls about the fish we’d probably see. They had heard us telling them stories about the aggressiveness of the fish in the waters of Grand Cayman and wondered if these fish would be like that. The fish in the Caymans are completely protected and they’re used to divers feeding them, so they’ve become very aggressive.

Ronnie and I went to the Caymans in 1986. We were both used to the common habit of trailing your arms along your sides with your hands back by your thighs when diving because fins give you all the propulsion you need. The easy way to spot a newbie diver is noticing someone using his/her arms a lot. On our first dive, we assembled at the base attachment of the mooring ball about 70 feet down, then followed the divemaster down an underwater canyon out toward “the wall” where the undersea topography drops precipitously to the bottom of the Cayman Trench, deepest spot in the Caribbean. I immediately noticed that the divemaster was swimming with her arms crossed on her chest and thought to myself, “What an affected posture. What’s she trying to prove with that?”

Mere moments later I felt a sharp pain in the index finger of my left hand. I snatched it up and turned to look at it only to see an 18-inch yellowtail darting away. He had bitten me, clearly thinking that those little fat sausage fingers looked awfully tasty. Ah! Comes the dawn. Now I intuitively understood why the divemaster swam with her arms folded. Starting then and for every dive in the Caymans thereafter, I too swam like a righteous gangsta in a Buffalo Stance.

Feeding those greedy denizens of the deep was an exercise in speed and dexterity. You’d reach into a pocket on your BC and grab a handful of food. While you did this, you were surrounded by eager, expectant, and hungry fish. Other divers could barely see you through the massed wannabe diners. Then, you quickly and efficiently drew your hand out of the BC pocket, closed the pocket flap with the other hand, and waved you full hand through the water, briefly opening it to release the food, then swiftly closing it into a fist and bringing it to your chest to avoid having it bitten. Now, with food in the water, other divers literally could not see you because of the density of the feeding frenzy surrounding you and you could see nothing but a swirling mass of fish.

But this is the British Virgin Islands not the Caymans. Ronnie and I had been here before we had the girls and we knew that the fish here were not nearly as comfortable around humans and nowhere close to as aggressive as their Cayman counterparts. The girls had seen our Cayman video and they had seen their mother disappear in a swirling ball of good-sized fish. They had also noticed that, just before she disappeared completely, they could see the fingers of her gloves being tugged in the mouths of those piranha wannabes. I assured the girls that these BVI fish were much more well-mannered than their Cayman cousins and these guys would hang back even after you distributed food and returned your closed hand to your chest. After a moment, they would shyly and cautiously dart in, take a bite, and dart away, never bothering you but giving you a delightfully close look at them. I promise. Pinky swear!

With that reassurance, the girls donned their gear, took their personal baggies of chopped up hot dogs, and we all entered that life-sized aquarium. We were in about 20 feet of water, right over a very lush reef which featured mini-canyons, carving down to 30 feet or more and peaks rising to within 10 feet of us at the surface. All around us in the water were schools of beautiful tropical fish: yellowtails, sergeant-majors, butterflyfish, rock beauties, squirrelfish, angelfish, and the eponymous blue tangs.

(insert dramatic music as an adumbration of what is to come)

Kicking slowly along the reef, we admired all the fantastic beauty around us. We were casually flanked by many of those fish species I mentioned above, probably because they smelled the food we carried. Once in a while one of us would reach into our baggie and produce a small cloud of meat. As I had prophesized to the girls, fish would hesitantly dart in, grab a morsel, then dart away. It was delightful and the girls were truly having the time of their lives.

Chloe was a little tentative about the yellowtails because they were the biggest and most aggressive; and our Cayman video showed that it was mostly yellowtails being aggressive enough to bite at gloves and trailing straps and BC pockets. But here in the BVI they behaved like all the rest, staying mostly out of reach.

We snorkelled around, enjoying the ethereal beauty of the undersea world, occasionally diving down to see a parrotfish up close or get a better look at the small guys who live close to the reef structure, wrasses, basslets, etc. Then, there’s a commotion in the water and Chloe is complaining that a clearly-insane and possibly rabid blue tang had bitten her pinky.

Oh shit! I am in trouble now. And after a pinky swear, too. Oh double shit!

Ronnie and I checked and her pinky was bleeding a bit and she was clearly done with this activity, so we headed back to the boat. Ronnie and I swam on either side of the girls, who were close together, in a psychological display of protection from flesh-eating fish. We climbed aboard and rinsed off in the freshwater cockpit shower, then sat down to take a look at Chloe’s finger and measure her level of pain/fear/distrust.

She told us it hurt a lot more than she thought it would but she was pretty content with a bandaid and a comfy sit-down on the settee in her mom’s lap with a glass of tropical fruit juice. I apologized to her and she superficially accepted the apology despite the fact that she was still so close to the event, which I had promised her would never happen, that she still felt a bit betrayed.

In terms of the flow of this narrative, I’ll tell you now that she was completely reconnected to me within a day and she enjoyed many more snorkelling adventures on that trip. I'll tell you this one additional story because it’s just soooo Chloe.

Sometime later in the trip, we were comfortable enough with the girls’ skills that we let them snorkel off the stern by themselves as long as we were in the cockpit watching/listening. [N.B. For those of you who twitch with concern upon hearing this, please note that I was a lifeguard and am certified as a SCUBA Divemaster, which means I am a great, and experienced, rescue swimmer, first aider, and know my abilities quite accurately. As their dad, I also know my children’s abilities. So, don’t worry. She was completely safe.] There we were in this lovely little anchorage called Benures Bay and Chloe was snorkelling the reef by herself while Ronnie and I sat in the cockpit, winding down from another day in Paradise. If you don’t know Chloe, you should be aware that she can be quite a talker. In this particular case, as she snorkelled the reef, we could hear her maintaining a running commentary through her snorkel! We could rarely make out individual words in her color-commentary narrative but one which we both heard clearly was “Octopus!”

It was completely charming and amusing. The flesh-rending attack of the monster-mutant blue tang had not scarred her…emotionally. It did, however, leave a scar on her pinky. In true Chloe fashion, she kept a diary of that vacation. On the back page of the diary, she drew two human figures, a front view and a rear view. You may have seen this technique employed on first-aid pages. It allows you to mark the victim’s injuries for future reference. Chloe’s “first-aid figures” were labelled with all the injuries she sustained during that trip! Prominent among them was the label “Blue Tang BITE” and an arrow pointing to her poor savaged pinky.

Ok. I said that was the one additional story I’d tell but there is just one more story from that trip which fits into this narrative. I’ll be brief, I swear.

At one point in our sail, we picked up a follower. When throwing our dinner leftovers off the stern to see who’d come for a snack, we noticed a free-swimming remora. A good-sized guy, too. When we saw him the next evening, it was clear he’d decided to follow us. By the third evening, we were interested in seeing just how friendly this guy was. After seeing Ronnie and MJ hand feed him, Chloe gave it a try, too.

That’s no 8-in blue tang! That’s a big remora.

It was amazing how gentle he was. He would slide up to your hand and carefully take the food from your fingers. Once we were all comfortable hand feeding him from the transom, we got in the water with him. That was a wonderful encounter with a species which is usually not found alone in the wild.

After that experience, it was crystal clear, if it hadn’t been before, that Chloe was not traumatized by the attack of the rabid, mutant, monster blue tang. And that marks the end of the narrative part of this post.

Ok, so where’s the moral of this fairytale adventure? What does this say to/about unschooling?

I’m glad you asked! (wink)

At the simplest level, people with kids in school would find it difficult to take two weeks during the schoolyear to go to the Virgin Islands. Unschoolers have the entire calendar available to them to put to whatever use they desire. People with money can travel the world. People with less money can have rich, full adventures right in their back yard. Despite the fact that I don’t really like the metric, I hafta say that the easiest way to put it is that we live and love with each other 24/7/365.

More meaningfully, the parent-child relationship in our home differs significantly from the American norm, which is one of control and coercion. We’ve always tried to be open and honest with our daughters. As a result, they’ve responded in kind. When we tell them something, they trust us implicitly; and we trust them the same way. We’re imperfect creatures, so we do screw up with some regularity. When we do, we apologize. Trust is a two-way street which is not easily found and which requires regular maintenance. But when you’re on that street, it’s smooth goin’ and easy travellin’.

When I told Chloe that the fish would not bite her, she believed me completely because we shared mutual respect and mutual trust. I meant what I said; it wasn’t merely a manipulative device to force her into the water. When that little tang bit her little pinky, he broke that trust. However, because of our relationship, when I apologized and told Chloe I was as shocked as she was and that the behavior of that single fish was an aberration, she accepted that, too. The next time we went snorkelling, she was a tad hesitant at the start; but by the end of that snorkel, she was back to a full level of comfort in the presence of innumerable fish of various species.

Because of the open and honest nature of our relationship, Chloe believed me when I told her she would not be bitten. When she was bitten, despite my assurances to the contrary, she accepted my explanation and apology and returned to the water with only a little hesitation. Again, because of the power of our relationship, she was able to move comfortably beyond a failed promise.

I know from personal experience that some (many?) parent-child relationships are almost completely devoid of trust. Dad says, Get up on that horse and hang on and you’ll be ok. In reality, son and dad both know better. There’s a high probability that little Johnny will fall. When he does, it will hurt. But their relationship is based on power, dominance, and control. Little Johnny knows that his dad is really saying, I demand that you do this thing. Your fears and/or desires count for nothing. Just do what I say.

When Johnny does fall, it is shocking and painful. Does dad apologize or commiserate? Hell no. Dad says, You’re pitiful. A monkey coulda done better. Get back up there and you’re gonna keep getting up on that horse til you get it right.

Unschoolers know that their children are as human as they themselves are. Kids are not chattle. Kids are not something you own. The phrase “my car” is not congruent with the phrase “my kid.” Our children deserve respect as fully functioning human beings. When we accord them that respect, they return it in kind. It is a wonderful thing.

When we do not, our little Johnnies and Susies leave home as soon as they can and minimize their future interactions with us. We are shocked and saddened by their “rebellious” teen behavior and their lack of communication with us when they leave home (as early as possible). We never understand that it is a situation completely of our own creation, not theirs.

I never want to be that dad. I want to be the dad of the spontaneous blog carnival that happened in July 2010 when people wrote beautiful posts declaring “I’m that mom” or “I’m that dad” and waxed poetic in delightful detail about the loving relationship they have with their kid(s). Mine’s here. That’s the dad I want to be. The one whom Chloe trusts. The one she continues to trust even when I let her down because she accepts that I’m imperfect and that I never intentionally betrayed our trust and that I’ll do everything in my power to make things right again.

A relationship like that is forged from the material in the heart of stars. It is so strong and powerful that mere failures, mistakes, or plain old human cussedness cannot affect it. It is unbreakable, unyielding, untouchable. It is infinite and eternal. Even Thanatos/Mors quails before it.

A blue tang? Pshaw! A blue tang is nothing. Even one with a taste for human flesh.

Amor vincit omnia!

A brief divertissement on language and meaning

Subtitle: Bras Coupé lives on

Throughout history, both oppressor and oppressed have spoken in coded language when plain speech would have caused them problems. Nowadays we often refer to this kind of speech as “dog-whistle,” usually in the context of sociopolitics. For example, in 1981, Lee Atwater, infamous Republican strategist, said:

You start out in 1954 saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968, you can't say "nigger." That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting abstract now. You're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is - blacks get hurt worse than whites… I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me? Because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger.”

That’s an example of how the oppressors use code. For a good example of the oppressed using code, let’s drop back a couple of thousand years to when Christians used the symbol of the fish to recognize each other. The fish is certainly innocuous to the noncognoscenti of the general public but those who are au courant know what it really means. ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys = fish) is an acronym for "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ", (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr), which in English is "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior." Christians still use the fish symbol today, as you well know.

Of course, I could now talk about how that symbol was used to oppress once the formerly oppressed became the new oppressors; but that's a different post.

With those examples under our belts, let’s talk about the language code I want to share with you.

Current American vernacular has adopted the urban slang “bro” for “brother.” The Hawaiian variant, after being run through their Automatic Pidgin Translator, is “brah,” which sounds charming when spoken by a native but hurts my fucking ears when abused by the mouths of haoles. There is one, lone, single, singular exception: The homophone “bras.” Yes, it’s pronounced just like the Hawaiian “brah;” it’s French! Just as “bro” was coopted by the larger society from Black vernacular, contemporary New Orleans area Whites unthinkingly use “bras,” blithely assuming it to be merely the local version of “bro”. But the true root is far deeper and more portentous and lends a delightful irony to the scene of White yuppie ingenues bras-ing each other as they cavort around the French Quarter on a sultry, decadent weekend evening of music, absinthe, and debauchery.

Blacks in South Louisiana have greeted each other with “bras” since slavery days, but not as a casual version of “brother.” No indeed. “Bras” is far more deeply portentous than that. “Bro” when used in a casual interpersonal exchange in contemporary America is a meaningless word, equivalent to “dude” or “pal” or “fellow” or any other pedestrian diminutive. “Bras” tells a story and implies a promise.

In the early 1800s there was a slave who was called “Squire” by his White owners; his African birth name is lost to time. He was constantly escaping and during one particular escape and recapture was shot in the arm, resulting in the loss of that limb. There is an alternate story which says that he was not shot but that the limb was hacked off as punishment. I find both possibilities credible; choose the one you prefer. After recovering from the amputation, he again escaped. This time, he formed a band of escaped slaves and hardscrabble back-bayou Cajuns, and became the Robin Hood of South Louisiana Blacks.

Of course, White society saw him as a terrible moral-philosophical-sociopolitical threat and put a large price on his head. It was during this period that he emerged from the chrysalis of “Squire” to become Bras Coupé (the guy with the cut-off arm). Newspaper accounts of his activities at the time read like the most lurid of horror stories, for example, an “eyewitness account” from the New Orleans Picayune of Bras Coupé turning on four soldiers who were pursuing him, pulling their limbs from their bodies, and devouring the raw flesh in an orgy of bloodlust. What?!? Totally raw, without even a little sauce piquante? Wow, that guy was tough!

Black slaves saw him as a shining possibility. White mothers warned disobedient children that they’d be trimmed by Bras Coupé.

Inevitably, the reward for him was too great a temptation and a sometimes-ally beat him to death as he slept then turned in the body for the cash it represented. (Parenthetical story. The reward was listed as $2000. The mayor of New Orleans, Dennis Prieur, threatened the hopeful collector with jail time for being in Bras Coupé ‘s gang and/or murder for the way he killed Bras Coupé and ultimately negotiated him down to $250.) July 18, 1837 marked the physical end of Bras Coupé; however, it was merely the beginning of his legend. While he was alive and running free, robbing and harassing complacent White society, his name became a disturbing talisman to the power structure. After his death, his body was put on display in New Orleans and slaves were forced to file past it over the next few weeks as a reminder of what happens to rebellious slaves. Some accounts intimate that the forced viewing had the opposite effect and it strengthened the slaves’ resolve to resist and oppose their masters. An aside, remember that this is Summertime in New Orleans. The stench must have been horrific.

Whatever the reality of that viewing might be in terms of cowing or emboldening other slaves, the slaves in New Orleans and South Louisiana took to using the honorific “bras” among themselves as an homage and an exhortation to stay strong. In a move typical of an oppressed underclass, such a callout was innocuous enough to fly under the radar of the White overlords because it could be a simple variant of “brother,” but it was in actuality a deeply meaningful communication between exchangers.

Referring to another person with the sobriquet “bras” implies the history and the promise of Bras Coupé. Individual strength and strength of numbers can and will lead to freedom. Perhaps only short-term freedom, like Bras Coupé himself, his life, like his arm, cut short; but perhaps, hopefully, someday, by being brave and true and bold like Bras Coupé, freedom could be ubiquitous and universal.

I am, of course, a contemporary, comfortable, middle-class White guy, not a Black slave nor even a downtrodden, second-class-citizen Black of the 1950s. But I am a socially and politically aware product of a New Orleans upbringing and I grok the gestalt of “bras.”

I may call someone “dude,” “pal,” “buddy,” “my man,” etc. and all of those are equivalently meaningless, just a casual acknowledgement of the existence of someone I’m interacting with. Ah, but if I call you “bras,” well, that’s an entirely different story and, whether you know it or not, I have accorded you an immensely powerful honorific and implication that I trust that you are the kind of person who’ll “nut up” when you’re called upon to do so.